Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Jonathan Safron Foer

I heard two great authors speak in Pittsburgh in the last
month. Salmon Rushdie came a few weeks ago, and I saw
Jonathan Safron Foer last night. I read his beautiful book
Everything is Illuminated while I was in Finland at the
beginning of my trip this summer. I heard him speak once
before, in a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side. This
was a much different venue. There, there were at most 30
people. There were hundreds in the audience last night.

Like Salmon Rushdie, he seems like a guy you'd love to
have as a friend. He's funny, charming, and candid.
He handles questions thoughtfully and with valuable insight, and is humorously
frank in his story telling. He mostly talked about writing
last night. One thing he mentioned on was the lack of
importance placed on the imagination in society. How people
trust or value Dan Rather more highly than someone like
Phillip Roth. This was especially appropriate considering
this is "banned book month" in the public library system

He also told how his first book came to be. He was a
philosophy major at Princeton, where he wrote much of the
book. Upon graduation he held a series of odd jobs, one
including Tony the Tiger at a cancer walk. He spent a year
and a half as a secretary and even wrote an article about
prostate health for a men's magazine. A friend convinced
him to find an agent, so he went to Barnes and Noble, picked
up books that he liked, and saw who the authors thanked.
"To Sybil, the world's best agent", etc. Out of 8 letters,
only one agent took him on. The first five publishers
rejected his book. They wrote what he dubbed "what I know
now as a typical literary rejection".

"Dear Jonathan, you have undoubtedly written a work of
enduring genius. However... no thank you..."

He spoke about how it was difficult for him to write, and
that he hated doing it. (I think he was half joking.)
One audience member asked the question, "You mentioned that
you write about things that trouble you. After you write
about them, do they stop bothering you?"

After some thought, he answered that writing helped him to
become more close or intimate with whatever that pain or
sorrow happened to be. In this way he developed his own
relationship with it, and it allowed him to go on. Not that
he wasn't bothered anymore, but that he had come to some new
or different understanding of it.

One of the things he loved about writing was that you
could really let loose. He mentioned that he'd never left a
conversation satisfied. There was always something he meant
to say, or wished he hadn't said, or said it right, but the
person clearly didn't register the same sentiment. With
writing, he could change history, and not have to regret
using the wrong words. This was an interesting comment. He
considered reading his own work aloud strange for the same
reason. One important thing about writing is that it can
force you to slow down, or speed up, or read a passage a
second time. In an aural experience, those things are all
lost. Thus, literature will never be as popular as music or
movies, for you can have a passive movie or music
experience, but not so with books. He also used the image
of a tree being shown in a film, compared to on paper. In a
film, everyone is seeing the same tree. When read, the word
"tree" conjures different images in everyone. We are all
complicit in the creation of a work of literature.

After suppressing my bubbling jealousy (he's almost exactly
my age) I glanced at the sky, saying thank you that JSF
became a writer, and can share his unique insight with me,
with us all. Indeed, a work of enduring genius...

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